Deep in the Basement, Bukharan Jews Bust a Move

Tucked away in a bomb shelter, two women descended from an ancient Central Asian community are keeping their rich culture alive.

Location: Beit Eliyahu synagogue

Time: 4:30 P.M.

In the neighborhood: Run-down, two-story buildings line the narrow and still streets of the southern Tel Aviv neighborhood of Kiryat Shalom. Stray cats wander in the verdant patches between houses, as Israeli flags and laundry lazily flap in overhead porches. Firecrackers, leftover stock from Purim, thunder in the distance.

Venue: A bomb shelter-turned-synagogue/social club, situated in a quiet corner at the edge of the neighborhood. Down a narrow flight of stairs, a basement room is decorated with bookshelves packed with holy books and lined with colorful pictures of various rabbis. A large air-filtration system, designed to provide the shelter with purified air in the event of a chemical attack, stands silently in one of the corners.

Simcha: The local Bukharan community’s weekly get-together

Number of guests: ~30

A brief history of time: The story of the weekly Beit Eliyahu Bukharan culture fest is one of two roses. The first, Rosa Mulajanov, 74, a vibrant, smiley woman, initiated the gatherings 10 years ago as a way of providing spiritual sustenance to the large Bukharan community living in the neighborhood.

Thousands of immigrants began arriving here from the ancient Jewish hub of Bukhara – situated in modern-day Uzbekistan – following the fall of the Iron Curtain, and many felt the hardships of their new life.

Rosa’s mission was, then, to instill strength in the once-proud community through an insistence on preserving Bukharan culture, unique both for maintaining Jewish traditions for thousands of years while being essentially cut off from other Jewish communities, as well as for incorporating a myriad of cultural influences as a result of its Central Asian location (Turkish, Persian, Russian and many more).

However, doing everything by herself wasn’t easy for Rose, which is where the second rose, Rosa Arabov, who is today 83, stepped in. After the untimely death of her husband Shmuel, Rosa A. found that one way to deal with her loss was by turning into the most important, and actually only, sponsor of her friend’s endeavor – a partnership that continues to this day.

Rites: The echo of music audible on entering the small, gray bomb shelter explodes into a full-blown celebration when one reaches the basement level. Dozens of elderly women – dressed in an endless array of colorful and traditional Bukharan garb, featuring the topi (head covering), joma (silk robe) and pulakcha (embroidered scarf) – sit at tables set along the hard concrete walls, clapping their hands and singing with the music.

Zoya, a permanent member of the Rosas’ club, succinctly spells out the meaning of the weekly two-hour party: “If something at home isn’t right, we come to the club and we’re happy.”

A big reason for that mood is singer Shimon Polatov, 26, one of only two men in the room (including Rosa M.’s photographer-son Nissim). He's the age of most of the attendees’ grandchildren, and he sings and cheers into a microphone hooked up to a small amplifier. One by one the less timid, and more able-bodied, of the women approach Shimon, dance before him and, with his encouragement, partake in the singing.

Shimon, scion of a proud and musically gifted Bukharan family, volunteers to perform in small clubs like these around Israel, and sometimes even abroad. “They treat me like their own son,” he says of his audience.

At the center of the happening, Rosa M. seemingly bounces around the room, encouraging the older women, sitting hunched in their chairs with a faint smile, and generally making sure everyone is happy.

Maya, an actress and longtime member of the community, is given the microphone and tells the crowd about her recent tour of America. She makes a point of thanking the Rosas, and breaks into a musical duet with Shimon, who skillfully accompanies her with the doire, a flat-based drum.

However, the highlight of the evening, without any doubt, is the bakhshi khlatagi, a traditional Jewish Bukharan dish comprising meat, rice and greens boiled in water while enclosed in a cloth bag. In the narrow corridor outside, Rosa M. is unpacking the precious, steaming bundle and transferring its contents to a large bowl, stirring carefully until it is ready to be served on plastic plates to everyone inside.

With everyone full and content, Shimon, who never really let up the musical barrage, is back in business, charming the crowd into happy oblivion. Rosa A. passes the hat for donations to help fund the club’s operation.

To the side Tzvia, 56, Rosa’s daughter, dressed in modern, elegant clothes, looks bemused as she observes the little party. Does she preserve Bukharan culture in her own home? “Not really. That's more at my mom’s house. My husband is Ashkenazi … But he likes Bukharan food!”

Music: Shimon, the one-man powerhouse (plus guest artists).

Food: Kulcha (salty cookies decorated with nigella), bakhshi khlatagi, homemade cake.

Drink: Water, coffee, Kiddush wine.

Word in the ear: Tzvia, who, after a few years abroad, now lives in the nearby city of Holon, on why she didn’t insist on moving her mother with her: “All her friends are here, and there's all of this. It would be very hard for her if I took her out of it.”

In my spiritual doggy bag: That successful integration into a new society means sticking to your cultural guns even more, not trying to blend in with the crowd.

Random quote: Zoya, on when Bukharans are likely to bust out the festive clothes: “In weddings, in bar mitzvahs, in a bris, and even, God forbid, in funerals. All the way to the grave.”

Want to take part in Someone Else’s Simcha? Want to invite Haaretz to your family celebration? Send word to: HaaretzSimcha@gmail.com

Gil Cohen-Magen